Ètienne Lenoir and the Internal Combustion Engine

Lenoir’s engine at Musée des arts et métiers in Paris

On January 1860, Belgian engineer Étienne Lenoir was granted a patent on his newly developed internal combustion engine. Lenoir’s engine design was the first commercially successful internal combustion engine.

It is said, that Étienne Lenoir grew up in a very small town near Virton. Apparently, he decided to become an engineer in very early years, but left the city due to the fact that his family could afford not the education he needed around 1838. It has been delivered, that Lenoir walked his way to Paris, making his living from waiter jobs for a while.

In this period, Lenoir already started experimenting and even filed his first patent for producing white enamel through oxidation. Further experiments dealt with electrolysis and later on he developed an electromagnetic motor. Several patents followed but with only modest success. One of his major influences of the time was the French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot. He was known to have built the first working self-propelled mechanical vehicle and may have been the first to build a steam-powered vehicle, which is highly disputed at this time. However, one of his inventions was exhibited at the École Centrale Paris and Lenoir started thinking of improving the construction. He noticed that this machine had numerous weaknesses including its weight, its brakes, and its furnace.

Quickly, Lenoir noticed that the steam engine’s days were counted due to its inefficiency and enormous weight. He began building another engine and was helped by Hippolyte Auguste Marinoni, who became pretty wealthy with his rotary printing press just previously. The first successful results evolved in 1858 and 1859 when Lenoir upgraded his newly built single-cylinder engine to a functional gas engine. The machine’s advantage was its quietness, but it was still not working efficiently enough. 

Of course, Lenoir was influenced by several brilliant engineer previously in order to improve his machine. For instance, he built on the work of Robert Street, and Philippe Lebon, who made significant contributions to the development of the gas engine. In November 1859, Lenoir filed his patent for the internal combustion engine, which he was able to sign in January 1860. Still, Lenoir’s invention had a few significant weaknesses. It used too much fuel and became way too hot when running. Too much effort was needed to develop a decent watercooling system.

However, his combustion engine was a great success and was even demonstrated at the 1862 International Exhibition in London.  Several contracts followed and Lenoir even built his engines in boats and invented his own automobile, the hippomobile which carried its own internal combustion engine. 

At yovisto, you may enjoy a short historical video on the development of Diesel Engines from the 1970s. 

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